On Tuesday the state delivered what was intended to be a lullaby to soothe our collective outrage at the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin: whispers of “guilty, guilty, guilty.” Instead, within minutes, the nightmare of policing reared its ugly head as news broke that officers in Columbus, Ohio, responded to a call for help by pumping four bullets into the heart of a 16-year-old Black girl within ten seconds of arriving on the scene of a fight.
Notwithstanding the platitudes offered on cable news suggesting that we can all rest easy now that the verdict has put everything right in the world again, and the declarations of “victory” being made by everyone from pundits to players, Chauvin’s conviction of murder in the second degree represents neither justice nor change. It may offer a measure of solace—and we deeply hope George Floyd’s family and community can find some solace—but only in comparison to the alternative. No matter how much time Derek Chauvin is sentenced to, it won’t bring George Floyd back to his loved ones or offer healing or repair. Nor will it bring any relief or respite to Black people terrorized on a daily basis by thousands of cops just like Derek Chauvin.
Not only has there not been “justice,” there hasn’t been “accountability.” Chauvin hasn’t taken any responsibility for his actions, and neither have the three cops who stood by as he murdered Mr. Floyd. Cops across the country are trumpeting the trial as a miscarriage of justice. Militarized police preparations for anticipated protests of the trial’s outcome frame communities as enemy combatants. And the passage of laws across the country criminalizing dissent and authorizing violence against protesters demonstrate the stark reality that the verdict won’t do anything to protect Black communities facing brutal repression whenever we rise up in mourning and rage in the wake of each new police murder.
A single conviction of a single cop won’t change the system that produced and enabled him; in fact, it will embolden it to continue business as usual under the pretext that it can deliver justice. For every rare criminal conviction of a killer cop, thousands more Black people will be murdered, maimed, raped, criminalized and dehumanized without consequence. Since 2005 there have been 140 police arrests on murder or manslaughter charges, while cops have killed over 1000 people a year on average since at least 2014.
In the six weeks since the Chauvin trial began, 64 people have been killed by police—65, if we count Ma’Khia Bryant, shot as the verdict was handed down, and 68 if we count the three more people we know about who were shot the day after. Only 1.1% of police who kill people are criminally charged, and the number of prosecutions documented over a decade represents just over 1/10th of the number of people police kill in a year. Of these, only 44 cases yielded convictions, usually on lesser charges.
Each of these prosecutions consumed tremendous amounts of resources while leaving a murderous system intact. Not one of them stopped the next killing. Yet each is offered up as an illusion that the system will somehow hold itself accountable. The state will gladly sacrifice a few officers in unique and spectacular cases to preserve the status quo while enabling policymakers to peddle the idea that justice has been done.
Policymakers are already making it clear that they no longer feel pressure to continue with the political theater of passing legislation that would have done nothing to prevent Mr. Floyd’s death and would pour $750 million more dollars into departments like the one that employed Chauvin to investigate police killings after the fact. They will use Chauvin’s conviction to argue that the system is working just as it should, and to stifle any efforts at substantive systemic change. In other words, George Floyd’s murder is being used to recuperate the institution that killed him in the midst of one of the greatest crises of legitimacy it has faced.
The state will gladly sacrifice a few officers in unique and spectacular cases to preserve the status quo while enabling policymakers to peddle the idea that justice has been done.
The futility of prosecutions in preventing the next police killing was proven by the actions of a Columbus, Ohio, officer who gunned a Black girl down in the street in front of her home as the verdict in the Chauvin case was read, and of the officers who then proceeded to yell “Blue Lives Matter” at a grieving crowd of Black people who had witnessed her murder while wearing face masks with the pro-police slogan emblazoned on them.
But Ma’Khia Bryant is much more than a well-timed rhetorical point in a debate about “reimagining” policing vs. abolishing the violent institution altogether. She matters not because the timing of her killing allows for a neat juxtaposition, but because her life does.
Ma’Khia was a beloved Black girl who would still be here if we didn’t perseverate on the myth that cops – and policing – keep us safe. If we focused on how Black girls are perceived and policed from the youngest age in every institution. If we understood that for Black women, girls, trans and gender-nonconforming people, a call for help can be – and is all too often – fatal. If we understood the violence Black girls routinely experience in the foster system as part of the violence we are fighting to end. If we understood that our failure to protect Black girls, women and trans people from violence and provide for a world where they have everything they need to be safe often leaves them with no choice but to defend themselves – and then be criminalized, punished, or worse yet, killed as a result.
As members of the In Our Names Network gathered on Tuesday night to hold space together and learn more about how we could support Ma’Khia’s family and organizers on the ground in Columbus, we worried that the tragedy of Ma’Khia’s killing would be sacrificed to the imperative of the recuperation narrative, to preserve the dream that justice was and can be done for a Black man killed by police.
George Floyd’s murder is being used to recuperate the institution that killed him in the midst of one of the greatest crises of legitimacy it has faced.
We braced ourselves for the inevitable demonization, victim-blaming and adultification of a Black girl, and the predictable distinctions drawn between “armed” and “unarmed” victims of police violence. We anticipated the focus on what she was doing instead of questioning why killing her, as opposed to employing a multitude of other options, including de-escalation, is being normalized as a rational response under circumstances. We watched as her family fought to have the world see Ma’Khia as worthy of life, and as people circulated videos of a beautiful sweet Black girl doing her hair in an effort to counter criminalizing and dehumanizing projections. We know that there will be no conviction or accountability for the officer involved, and that non “exceptional” killings like this will continue to be routinely justified in contrast to rare prosecutions of police. Her experience illuminates the full picture of policing, in which the Chauvin prosecution is the exception, not the rule.
As the state continues to sing the lullaby that justice was served in the Chauvin case and we can make the system work “for us,” we cannot be seduced by siren songs of faux “accountability” and prison sentences. More and more people are becoming uneasy and disquieted by the lullaby, rather than being induced to slumber. We all need to keep our eyes wide open to see the work ahead.
The demand is still to defund and abolish policing. We cannot let policymakers claim this conviction as a justification to continue to pour money into policing and punishment—including through more “investigations,” consent decrees, commissions and “oversight”—while our communities continue to be defunded and denied the resources we need to survive, the majority of survivors of violence continue to be left behind by law-enforcement-based approaches, and our loved ones continue to be criminalized and killed. We cannot afford to double down on the notion that if we just pour more faith and funds into the system – including money intended for pandemic recovery – the nightmare will dissipate.
We watched as her family fought to have the world see Ma’Khia as worthy of life, and as people circulated videos of a beautiful sweet Black girl doing her hair in an effort to counter criminalizing and dehumanizing projections.
We can’t sleep in a world where a man is murdered over a $20 bill and then blamed for his own death, where a woman is killed in a police home invasion, where a teen’s call for help can be fatal, where children are killed before, during, and after a trial intended to burnish the reputation of the institution that killed them. The whole damn system is in fact guilty as hell. It’s time to build a world where they would all still be here to dream their own futures. A world where there is more safety, more resources, and infinitely more options to address conflict, harm and need. A world without police.
Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie are co-founders of Interrupting Criminalization, and co-authors of No More Police: A Case for Abolition (forthcoming from New Press in 2022). Kaba is the author of the New York Times best-seller We Do This Til We Free Us, founder of Project Nia, and co-founder of Survived and Punished. Ritchie is the author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, co-author of Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, and co-founder of the In Our Names Network.